In just a few hours a person could become fatally ill from cholera. The bacteria-based infection rapidly drains bodily fluids, meaning a person can lose as much as 10 liters in a few hours from diarrhea and vomiting. What results is severe dehydration, unconsciousness and an immediate need for treatment.
“I have seen many people coming here carrying a family member on their back,” says Swedish doctor Heike Haunstetter, a medic Metro met at one of the 10 cholera clinics that Doctors Without Borders (MSF) set up in Port-au-Prince since late October.
Every day Heike takes care of a steady stream of patients from nearby Martissant, one of the capital’s most gang-ridden and poverty-stricken slums — and an excellent breeding ground for cholera.
“It is actually very simple to cure cholera. It is all about getting liquid into the body,” says Heike.
Unfortunately, many Haitians are so frightened of the disease that they are also afraid of seeking help when they become ill. Until the outbreak of cholera in October, the disease was unknown among the people of Haiti. The Haitian government and aid groups say over 3,600 have died from the disease but doctors fear the actual figure is much higher.
Cholera is a very contagious disease, but with basic levels of hygiene and clean drinking water many people could remain healthy.
Right now the doctors are preparing for a prolonged epidemic.
“It is not yet the time to plan the future,” says Heike, “but we need to prepare Haitian medic personnel so that they can continue working, because cholera is very likely going to stay.”